Okay, the time has come to get out of hibernation and get back to my beloved Hillel the Elder. What other man would be as forgiving when neglected for four full months? I apologize to him and to all the wonderful and amazing readers of this book/blog who kept coming back to the site (unless my host is lying) day after day. I appreciate it greatly.
This posting is not about Hillel himself, but about a subject that is closely related – the Talmud. As I am sinking deeper and deeper into this amazing work, the more I realize that the scholars are right. There is no beginning and no end to the Talmud. The saying that “no matter where you open the Talmud, you are at the beginning” is absolutely correct, it seems to me. And taking it one step further, I firmly declare that the Talmud is not a book. It’s the ancient version of the Internet – an early Google, maybe – covering all knowledge of the time in no specific order.
The Talmud includes many hilarious, unrealistic discussions of situations that cannot happen, used as pedagogic tools. Some of them, though, seem almost eerie. Almost two thousand years ago, how could they have the idea of surrogacy? They did not have the knowledge or tools of complicated surgery. And yet, they coolly discussed surrogate motherhood, in detail!
The reason for discussing it at all had to do with the value placed on being first born, be it an animal or a human. With humans, being first born meant much in questions of inheritance and other benefits. With cattle, in Jewish law, the first-born calf has special status and belongs to the priests. So here is how it is presented in the Talmud:
“What is the law if a weasel inserts its head into a pregnant animal’s womb, takes the fetus into its mouth and pulls it out of the womb and then the weasel reinserts its head into the womb of another animal and spits out the fetus, who then emerges naturally [and is now the first-born]? What is the law if the wombs of two animals become attached and the fetus leaves one womb and enters the other womb, and then emerges from the latter womb [is it a first-born or not]? (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 70a)”
When I stopped laughing after reading (and visualizing the busy weasel doing its bizarre job) I realized that this is really eerie. Both questions relate to today’s technology, which allows the transfer of a fetus to a surrogate mother. If an egg donated by one woman is fertilized in vitro and implanted in another woman’s womb, who is the mother?
The Aggadah goes further. Dinah, Jacob’s eleventh child, seemed to have been in this situation. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 30:21, relates that Leah was pregnant with Joseph and Rachel was pregnant with Dinah. Leah prayed that Rachel would give birth to a male and God switched the embryos. Nonetheless, Dinah who was conceived by Rachel and born to Leah was considered Leah's child; and Joseph who was conceived by Leah but born by Rachel was considered Rachel's child. Even though this is legend, not Law, it shows that these rabbis believed that the child's identity is determined by the birth mother and not by the ovum donor.
But the legality of the issues is of less interest to me than the fact that such possibilities even crossed the minds of these sages. And most important: why a
weasel? Why not an angel? Proof positive that the sages had a wonderful sense of